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I was recently married, just out of college, and working at my first grown-up job when Michael, my husband, came into a bit of money, a few hundred dollars that seemed to fall from the sky. He took one look at the check and thought, “Car payments!” I, ever the romantic, saw it and almost screamed, “Paris!”
Whoever said screaming will get you nothing was wrong. A month later, we landed in France.
Somewhere there's a picture of me from that trip. I'm an impossibly skinny young woman with a huge grin. I'm spinning around with arms out wide, and I look like I'm about to grab Paris and hold on to her forever. Which I did.
There were a million reasons I took Paris into my heart. Everything about the city entranced me, from the way the women walked on towering stiletto heels over bumpy cobblestoned streets to how old-fashioned neighborhood restaurants still had cubbyholes where regulars could keep their napkin rings. I loved the rhythm of Parisian life, the sound of the language, the way people sat in cafés for hours.
I fell in love with the city because it fit all my girlish ideas of what it was supposed to be, but I stayed in love with all of France because of its food and its people.
I'm convinced my fate turned on a strawberry tartlet. We were walking up the very chic rue Saint-Honoré, pressing our noses against the windows of the fashionable stores and admiring everything we couldn't afford, when the tartlet, a treat within our means, called out to me. It was the first morsel I had on French soil, and more than thirty years later, I still think it was the best tartlet of my life, a life that became rich in tartlets.
This one was a barquette, a boat-shaped tartlet so teensy that all it could hold was a lick of pastry cream and three little strawberries, but everything about it excited me. The crust was so beautifully baked and flaky that when I took the first bite, small shards of it flew across my scarf. It was butter that gave the crust its texture, remarkable flavor, and deep golden color, and a little more butter and pure vanilla that made the pastry cream so memorable. And those strawberries. They were fraises des bois - tiny wild strawberries - but I had no idea of that then. What I did know was that they tasted like real strawberries, whose flavor I must have subconsciously tucked away in my memory.
That evening, after searching for a restaurant that would keep us within the budget set by Europe on $5 a Day, we settled into a crêperie near our hotel. It was startling to see a big menu offering nothing but crepes, and not a single one famous in America! Everything we tasted was a novelty: the buckwheat crepe was lacy and chewy, and the sunny-side-up egg that accompanied it had a yolk the color of marigolds and the true taste of eggs.
I returned home to New York City, assured my mother that I loved her even though she'd made the mistake of having me in Brooklyn instead of Paris, and proceeded to devote the rest of my life to remedying her lapse in judgment.
I took French lessons, learned to tie a scarf the French way, and in anticipation of spending more time in cafés, I practiced making an espresso last long enough to get through a chapter of Sartre.
And I cooked. I made the food I'd loved in France, the food you'll find in this book - simple, delicious, everyday food, like beef stews made with rough country wine and carrots that I could have sworn were candied but weren't (I've got a similar dish on page 244); salads dressed with vinaigrettes that had enough sharp mustard in them to make your eyes pop open (see page 484); and hand-formed tarts with uneven edges that charred a bit when they caught the oven's heat (just as the one on page 458 does).
I returned to Paris as often as I could and traveled through France as much as I could. On each trip, I'd buy cookbooks, collect recipes from anyone who'd share them (and almost everyone I asked, from farmers in the markets to chefs, was happy to share), and take cooking and baking classes everywhere they were offered. Then I'd come back and spend days at a stretch trying to perfect what I'd learned or to teach myself something new.
When Marie-Cécile Noblet, a Frenchwoman from a hotel-restaurant family in Brittany, came to live with us as an au pair for Joshua, our infant son, I was working on a doctoral thesis in gerontology but thinking I wanted to make a change in my life. Within weeks of her arrival, I was spending more time in the kitchen with her than in school with my advisors.
Marie-Cécile was a born cook. When she made something particularly wonderful and I asked a question, she'd give me a perfect Gallic shrug, put her index finger to the tip of her nose, and claim that she'd made it au pif, or just by instinct. And she had. She could feel her way around almost any recipe - as I'd later see so many good French cooks do - and she taught me to trust my own instincts and to always have one tool at my side: a spoon to taste with.
It would take me a decade to make my passion my work, but shortly after Marie-Cécile arrived, I put aside my dissertation, left my job in a research center, and got a position as a pastry cook in a restaurant. A couple of years later, I landed some assignments as a food writer: I became the editor of the James Beard Foundation publications and was hired to write for Elle magazine. Best of all, I got to work with the greatest French chefs both here and in France.
It was the late 1980s; some of les grands, as the top chefs were called, were shaking up haute French cuisine and I had a front-row seat at the revolution. I worked in Jean-Georges Vongerichten's first American kitchen when he banished butter from his sauces and did away with long-cooked stocks in favor of light pan jus, vegetable purees, and his then-radical flavored oils. I tagged along with Gilbert Le Coze, the chef-owner of Le Bernardin, a new breed of seafood restaurant in New York City, as he strode through the Fulton Fish Market picking the best of the catch and teaching other city chefs how to get the most out of fish, like monkfish and skate, they'd once ignored. And I was lucky enough to spend some time with Alain Ducasse learning how he worked the sunny ingredients and the easygoing style of the Mediterranean into his personal take on rigorous French cuisine.
These amazingly talented chefs and others like them were adding flavors from all parts of the world to their cooking and, in the process, not only loosening up French cooking, but making it more understandable to us Americans - more like the melting-pot cooking that's the hallmark of our own tradition.
I was dazzled by their brilliance, but I was fascinated by something else: the unbroken connection to the cooking of their childhoods. After making a startlingly original ginger sauce for his famous molten chocolate cake, Jean-Georges urged me to taste a cup of thick lentil soup, because it was made exactly as his mother would have made it (my version is on page 90). Having prepared a meal that included a kingly amount of precious black truffles, Daniel Boulud told me he couldn't wait to have hachis Parmentier, a humble shepherd's pie (see page 258). And Pierre Hermé, France's most famous pastry chef, after making a chocolate dessert that was masterly, revealed that its haunting flavor came from a jar of Nutella (just as it does in his tartine on page 415).
For years I continued to travel back and forth between New York City and France. Then, thirteen years ago, I became truly bicontinental: Michael and I moved into an apartment in Paris's 6th arrondissement, and I got the French life I couldn't ever have really imagined but had always longed for. Finally I could be a regular in the small shops of my neighborhood and at the vendors' stalls at the market, and nicest of all, I could cook for my French friends, and they for me.
Now I can chart the changing seasons by what my friends and I are cooking. When asparagus arrives, dinner at Martine Collet's starts with pounds of them, perfectly peeled to their tips, steamed just until a knife slips through them (see page 128), piled on a platter, and flanked by two bowls of her lemony mayonnaise. In early fall, when the days are warm but the nights are a little cooler, Hélène Samuel makes her all-white salad (page 108), a mix of mushrooms, apples, celery, and cabbage dressed with a tangy yogurt vinaigrette. When the cold weather is with us for real, Paule Caillat can be counted upon to serve Parisian gnocchi (page 374), a recipe passed down to her by her Tante Léo. And throughout the year, we lift the lids of Dutch ovens to reveal tagines, the beloved spice-scented Moroccan stews (try the one for lamb with apricots on page 284), or slowly braised boeuf à la mode (page 252) with a sauce gently seasoned with anchovies, or chicken braised in Armagnac (page 204), or an all-vegetable pot-au-feu (page 376).
What's being cooked in French homes today is wonderful partly because it's so unexpected. One week you might have a creamy cheese and potato gratin (see page 360) just like the one a cook's great-grandmother used to make, and the next week you'll be treated to a simply cooked fish with a ginger-spiked salsa (page 489) taking the place of the butter sauce that would once have been standard.
I love this mix of old and new, traditional and exotic, store-bought and homemade, simple and complex, and you'll find it in this book. These are the recipes gathered over my years of traveling and living in France. They're recipes from friends I love, bistros I cherish, and my own Paris kitchen. Some are steeped in history or tied to a story, and others are as fresh as the ingredients that go into them; some are time-honored, and many others are created on the spur of the moment from a basket full of food from the day's market.
This is elbows-on-the-table food, dishes you don't need a Grand Diplôme from Le Cordon Bleu to make. It's the food I would cook for you if you came to visit me in Paris - or in New York City, where all of these recipes were tested. The ingredients are readily available in the United States; almost everything can be bought at your neighborhood supermarket, and the techniques are straightforward and practical, as they must be - French home cooks are as busy as we are.
Holding this book of recipes, a record of my time in France, I have the sense of something meant to be: the reason that Michael and I ended up with plane tickets and a strawberry tartlet all those years ago.
About the recipes
All the recipes in this book were made with large eggs, unsalted butter, and whole milk unless otherwise specified.
Just about every time you cook or bake, you've got to make a judgment call - it's the nature of the craft. I tested these recipes over and over and wrote them as carefully and precisely as I could, but there's no way I could take into account all the individual variables that will turn up in your kitchen. I couldn't know exactly how powerful “medium heat” is on your stovetop, how constant your oven temperature is, how cool your steak is when you slide it into the pan, how full your skillet is when you're sautéing, and a million other little things that affect the outcome of what you're making. And so, I've given you as many clues as I can for you to decide when something is done, and I've often given you a range of cooking or baking times, but the success of any cooking - whether from this book or any other - depends on using your judgment. Don't cook something for 15 minutes just because I tell you to - check it a little before the 15-minute mark, and then keep checking until it's just right. I always feel that when I send a recipe out into the world, I'm asking you to be my partner in making it, and I love this about cookbookery. I trust your judgment, and you should too.
Provençal olive fougasse
Every once in a while, you'll come across a fougasse in a Parisian boulangerie, and as beautiful as it might be, it somehow looks a little lost. For sure, it's far from home. Considered a cousin of the Italian focaccia, it is a bread rooted in Provence, where olive oil trumps butter and rusticity reigns over prim, precise, and formal. A yeast-raised bread, this one scented with olive oil and rosemary and studded with olives, it's a fancifully shaped loaf that's meant to be served whole, the better to admire its form, then tugged and torn into pieces to be nibbled with wine and maybe a few slices of a nice garlicky saucisson.
The fougasse is not a solid loaf of bread - once it's rolled out and shaped, it's slashed so that it will have an open pattern. Most often, a fougasse is shaped into a leaf, but a ladder shape is popular too - roll the dough into a long rectangle, make 3 or 4 horizontal slashes in it, and then nudge the slashes open to form rungs. However, unless you plan to set up shop in Provence, you're free to shape the bread any way you please. When I want to go nonstandard, I roll the dough into a large circle, slash a few spokes in the dough, and make a cut in the center of the wheel. These odd-shaped breads are often called pains fantaisies (fantasy breads), a name I love almost as much as I love the act of making bread in fantastical shapes.
be prepared: The dough needs to rise for an hour or two and chill for as long as overnight before you can shape and bake it.
1 2/3 cups plus 2 teaspoons warm-to-the-touch water
1 3/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
5 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 cups all-purpose flour
11/4 teaspoons salt
1 cup oil-cured black olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
Grated zest of 1 lemon or 1/2 orange
Kosher salt or other coarse salt, for sprinkling
Pour 2/3 cup of the water into a measuring cup and sprinkle over the yeast and sugar. Stir with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, and let the yeast dissolve for about 5 minutes. When the mixture bubbles and looks creamy, add 1 more cup of the water, along with 4 1/2 tablespoons of the olive oil.
Put the flour and salt in a mixer bowl and stir to combine. Pour in the yeast mixture, attach the dough hook, and beat at medium-low speed for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the flour is moistened. Turn the speed up to medium and beat for 10 minutes more, or until the dough cleans the sides of the bowl. The dough will be very soft and sticky, almost like a batter, and it will pool at the bottom of the bowl, but that's fine. (You can mix this dough by hand using a wooden spoon, but you'll need time and a lot of energy, since the dough is so very soft and stretchy.)
Mix the olives, rosemary, and lemon or orange zest together, add them to the mixer, and beat for another minute or so. The olives won't blend into the dough completely, so finish the job with a sturdy rubber spatula or a wooden spoon.
Lightly oil a large bowl and scrape the dough into it. Lightly oil the top of the dough, then oil a piece of plastic wrap. Cover the bowl with the plastic, oiled side down, and put it in a warm place until the dough doubles in volume, 1 to 2 hours, depending upon the warmth of your room.
Stir the dough, cover it again, and refrigerate it for at least 6 hours, or for as long as 3 days. (I prefer to let the dough rest overnight.) If you're keeping it in the fridge for a while, it will probably rise to the top of the bowl again, in which case you can stir it down, or not - it's not crucial.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator, stir it down, and divide it in half. Turn 1 piece of dough out onto a floured surface and flour the top of the dough. Roll the dough into a rectangle that's about 12 inches long and 7 to 9 inches wide. Precision isn't important here. As you're working, lift the dough and flour the counter again if the dough is sticking. Transfer the dough to a large nonstick baking sheet or one lined with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper.
Using a pizza cutter, a single-edged razor blade, or an X-Acto knife, cut about 4 slashes, about 2 inches long, at an angle down each long side of the rectangle, rather like the veins on a leaf. If you'd like, make another 2-inch vertical slash near the top of the rectangle. Again, don't worry about precision. With your fingers, gently push and pull the slashes open, tugging the dough a little as you go. Try to get the holes to open to about an inch wide. As you cajole the dough, you might want to tug a little more at the base than at the top, so you end up with a bread that's flat at the bottom and tapers toward the top, like a leaf.
Repeat with the second piece of dough on a second baking sheet (or cover that portion and return it to the refrigerator to bake later).
Cover the dough with a kitchen towel and let it rest for 15 minutes.
Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. (If you're baking just 1 bread, bake it on the lower or middle rack.)
Mix the remaining tablespoon of olive oil with the remaining 2 teaspoons water in a small cup. Prick the dough all over with a fork and, with a pastry brush, lightly coat the fougasse with the oil and water mixture. Sprinkle the bread all over with kosher or other coarse salt.
Slide the baking sheets into the oven and bake for 10 minutes. Rotate the sheets from top to bottom and front to back and bake for another 8 to 10 minutes, or until the bread is golden - it won't get too dark. Transfer the fougasse to a cooling rack and let rest for at least 10 to 15 minutes before serving.
Pan-Seared Duck Breasts
Duck à l'orange, a duck roasted with oranges, is one of the great classics of traditional dressy French cuisine. In the 1950s and '60s, it was one of the standards against which serious home cooks in America measured themselves, but today it's almost never made at home in France or the United States and rarely found in restaurants.
The dish, which was daunting - you had to deal with a whole duck and a whole lot of fat - may have lost its following, but the combination of duck and orange is too good not to live on, so here's a more manageable version. This rendition delivers both the duck and the orange, but it features just the meaty breast and amps up the citrus flavor by using kumquat, orange's smaller, more exotic, more acidic cousin. It's a great addition to the sauce, which is made from wine, vinegar, broth, and cracked spices.
For added doability, the kumquats can be candied and the sauce made a few days ahead.
For the kumquats
1 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
12 kumquats, each cut crosswise into 4 slices and seeded
For the sauce
1 1/2 cups red wine (a fruity wine is good here)
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
3 small shallots, coarsely chopped
15 black peppercorns, bruised
8 coriander seeds, bruised
3/4 cup fresh orange juice
2 cups chicken broth
3 tablespoons kumquat syrup (from cooking kumquats)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
For the duck breasts
2 large duck breasts, preferably from a Moulard, or 4 small duck breasts (about 2 pounds total), at room temperature
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Crushed black pepper, for garnish
To make the kumquats: Bring the water and sugar to a boil in a small saucepan, stirring to make certain the sugar dissolves. Add the kumquats, lower the heat so that the syrup simmers gently, and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the kumquats are tender and translucent. Set aside to cool. (The kumquats can be made up to 5 days ahead and kept in a sealed container in the refrigerator; bring to room temperature before using.)
To make the sauce: Put the wine, balsamic vinegar, shallots, peppercorns, and coriander in a medium saucepan, bring to a boil over high heat, and cook until the liquid is reduced by half. Add the orange juice, return the mixture to a boil, and cook for 5 minutes. Add the chicken broth, bring to a boil, and continue to cook at a boil until reduced to about 2 cups of liquid. Strain the sauce and set aside while you prepare the duck breasts. (You can cover and refrigerate the sauce for up to 2 days.)
To make the duck: Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F.
Using the point of a sharp knife, score the duck skin in a crosshatch pattern, cutting deeply into the layer of fat but taking care not to nick the meat. Season the duck breasts on both sides with salt and pepper.
Heat a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. (You can cook the breasts in a skillet, but a casserole does a better job of containing fat spatters. A cast-iron casserole is perfect.) When a few drops of water sprinkled into the pot dance and evaporate quickly, put the breasts in the casserole skin side down - stand away, because the fat will spatter. Cook for 8 minutes, or until the skin is brown and crisp. Turn the pieces over and cook on the meat side for 3 minutes more for very rare breasts, which will cook a little more while they rest in the oven. If you'd like the meat slightly more cooked, keep the breasts in the pot for up to 2 minutes longer. (Cook any longer, and they will really be well-done, which is not what's best for a duck breast.)
Lift the breasts out of the pot and onto a sheet of aluminum foil. Seal the breasts loosely in the foil and put them in the oven on a baking sheet for 5 minutes to rest and finish cooking.
Pour off all but about a tablespoon of the fat from the pot, and set the pot over medium heat. Add the sauce and bring it to a boil, then stir in the 3 tablespoons kumquat syrup. Open the foil packet and pour whatever juices have accumulated around the duck breasts into the pot. Bring the sauce to a boil again; taste for salt and pepper. Return the breasts to the pot and turn them around in the sauce to reheat them, about 30 seconds on each side.
Slice the duck and serve with the sauce and candied kumquats; garnish the duck with crushed pepper.